Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Critic

As a musician, I have always trained myself to have a critical ear.  In my practice sessions, I constantly analyze my efforts to improve, determining if I have reached my goals or not.  When playing in an ensemble, my ear searches out whether or not I am in balance to the other instruments around me, if I am in tune with myself, with my neighbors, with my section, with the ensemble, with the unisons, with the chords.  I constantly monitor my tone, my reed, my posture, my fingers during quick technique, my breathing; I am adjusting everything as I go, working to create the best musical performance possible.
Oh, and I am reading a language written with curious figures upon a five line staff, with 12 possible dialects and four possible translations, inflected with a regiment of style symbols dictating everything from the strength of my tongue to the volume of air used to produce my sound.
Needless to say, my path as a musician, always seeking that fleeting moment of perfection, has instilled in me such a tremendous set of critical skills which too frequently deposits me in situations where I should not be critical, but am.
One particular musical occasion where I effectively stuck my foot in my mouth was in college.  I was not playing in the Wind Ensemble at the time and attended one of their performances.  I met a group of friends as they were coming off the stage, immediately setting in on everything I found wrong with the performance.  I should have taken the clue from their faces - back off - but kept right on lambasting where I should have been praising.  My monologue was cut off by a few deserved choice words from one of my closest friends.  I was a little shocked at him, but then realization at what I was doing set in.
Why couldn’t I celebrate their successful performance.  What was the benefit of pointing out every error or mistake.  Could they change it?  Could we go rehearse for a while and go do it again?  No.  There was no point to what I was saying.  Perhaps, in a setting later, when the floor was open to discuss how the ensemble could improve, my comments would have been more appropriate, but not then.  I began to learn a valuable lesson that day.
I would like to say that this was the one and only time in which I have made every unintentional effort to tear someone down, but I know it is not.  Recently, one of my greatest teachers - my wife Samantha - has helped me to realize I have been traveling the same path, only this time, my efforts have been directed at people rather than music.  Little did I realize that my efforts to prove when I was right and someone else was wrong were accomplishing the same effect.  
Being critical of a person, if conducted in the incorrect manner, can be misconstrued as an attack.  My efforts to prove someone else was incorrect about something as inconsequential as what name was on a piece of paper came across as more than just the issue at hand.  My words, body language, and intense efforts to achieve my goal, appeared to shout “you are an idiot!”  Was I aware of it?  No.  Thankfully, Samantha is gracious enough to help me in my efforts to be a better person.
In the classroom, we are taught that every piece of critical information should be accompanied by three praises.  For example: “Trumpets, thank you for playing with characteristic tone, for maintaining your tuning, and being sensitive to the ensemble balance, but I am not quite hearing the length of your notes matching that of the flutes.”  I target three things they did well - or at least well enough for praise - and then identified one object on which they need to improve.  Research has suggested that taking this three-to-one critical approach yields the greatest success.
Does this sound easy?  Sure it does.  Is it hard?  You bet.  Finding three praiseworthy things can be incredibly hard for me.  While pushing through a rehearsal, taking the time to say three positives to one negative can seem like a waste of time.  Deep down, I know it is not, but actualizing what I know in my classroom, opposed to the quick criticism with which I have trained myself, is a constant struggle.  As silly as this is, saying nice things, for the sake of saying them, sometimes seems like a waste of time, despite what reason tells me.
So this is my great effort, both in the classroom and interacting with people.  It is sort of like what Moms everywhere have taught us all - if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all.  People respond to feeling good, and if there is something that needs improvement, why not build them up by telling them what they do well.  This helps to instill a measure of confidence, a bit of motivation, and a certain amount “you can do it!”  Let me know how it goes for you.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Trimming the Roses

This is the time of year when green-thumbs abandon the indoors to play amongst their gardens.  Shears are sharpened, pruning devices are dug from their hiding places in garages and sheds, trowels, hoes, and shovels are resurrected, and the garden gloves find their comfortable resting places disturbed.  Gardening plans are formed and put into action and the eager gardener rediscovers the pleasure found in the sun’s warmth.

The first step in preparing the garden for the spring is to trim back the plants that survived the previous winter frosts and removing those that did not.  Only after we have taken care of what is already there can we see to bringing in new life.

Most garden enthusiasts suggest Valentines day as the date to begin pruning.  After the 14th, at least in southeast Texas, most of the freezing temperatures have left us behind, leaving only warm weather ahead.  I make sure to never even consider touching my roses until after Valentines day, otherwise, just like this year, our weather may choose to unleash frigid weather one or two last times.  Exposing freshly cut branches and vines to sub-freezing temperatures for extended periods is dangerous to the plants, preventing them from going through the proper growing season.
When attending to your roses, there are three stages of pruning.  Following these guidelines will ensure a beautiful plant for the year, allowing the production of healthy new growth and vibrant roses.  Leaving something out can be the difference between winning yard of the year and a letter from the home owner’s association.

First, find the obviously dead wood.  On a rose, you have to be careful.  Sometimes old wood will appear dead, having the brownish tint we associate with dead plants.  This is not always dead, though.  Dead wood in roses is dried out, looking more like a husk.  Remove all the dead wood, snipping as close to the transition between living and dead tissue to ensure a healthy cut.  This will create two results.  First, it clears space for the new growth, making sure enough light and air will get to the plant.  Second, it helps the plant direct it’s energy - you never want the plant to try to support dead or sick vines; you would rather it grow new, healthy shoots.
The second step is to open the center of the bush.  Find those branches that are growing inwards, preventing air and light from getting to the middle, and trim them off close to their source.  This will also shape the bush, helping it to flourish upwards and out, preventing a closed, tangled mass.  You may feel weird taking off healthy branches, but this step is just as important as the first.  Leaving the middle tangled and inhibited can be deadly for your roses.
Finally, find areas of the plant where it has grown against each itself or it’s neighbors.  These friction points will not allow the rose bush to grow, instead it will push and fight against itself.  Opening up areas of constriction will prevent unnecessary friction from occurring, allowing the plant to grow to it’s potential.
Once you complete these steps, you have pretty much prepared your rose bush for a good growing season.  Congratulations!
The last few afternoons I have been working on accomplishing the same tasks with my roses in the front.  These roses have been planted as the centerpiece of our front garden since we moved in, and they have certainly lived up to the bill, frequently producing numerous beautiful flowers over the years.  Samantha and I have certainly enjoyed their beauty, and I find it amazingly relaxing to maintain them.
While working over the last few days, I reflected on my efforts.  I try to see analogies in every action I take, to find ways that my physical efforts are reflected in my spiritual journey.  I discovered that the process I go through to trim my roses in late winter is perfect for addressing my own life.  Is there a better time than now to prepare for new growth?
I started looking in my own life for dead wood.  I searched for anything that I should have left behind, but unknowingly drag along behind me.  Struggling to heft this unrealized baggage leaves me exposed to weakness.  I am not able to grow as I should when hindered with the unnecessary.
Opening myself up is important, as well.  I am looking into areas where I am closed off to people, ideas, experiences, and anything else that might grow me.  By allowing myself to open up to new experiences, or find new and exciting aspects of my current life, I begin to shape my future. 
Looking at my life, I am searching for areas where I have created friction.  Do I subscribe to certain ideas or beliefs that don’t necessarily work together?  I need to rectify these, either finding common ground where they can work together, or ridding myself of those that are no longer correct.  Besides internal sources, I work to reduce friction with my environment, with co-workers, associates, friends, and loved ones.  Allowing friction to continue to exist, I encourage disease.  Freeing myself from it moves me forward.
I wish I could say that these three steps are as easy as my three afternoons in the garden have been, but I know they are not.  Each is a long process, one in which I participate every day.  As long as I keep them in mind and am constantly vigilant about them, I will grow, my own life being as productive and beautiful as the roses in my garden.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

All Means All

Conroe ISD, my employer, has a motto - All Means All.  Our superintendent wants to make sure the community, the county, the state, and the nation recognize that CISD is concerned about every one of our students.  We don’t dismiss kids because their behavior is less than perfect, nor do we leave anyone out because their efforts did not earn the test scores we needed.  All Means All is very simple and needs no explanation.
On our campus we see the evidence of our motto in the efforts of the teaching staff, the administration, the paraprofessionals, and the support staff.  While we are all humans, and breakdowns do occur, the goal to reach all children is ever present.  In the band classes we even use the motto to remind the students that in Conroe, we play all the notes, and All Means All.

I attempt to model my life on those masters of the human experience who have come before us.  History is rife with individuals who have approached others with unconditional love.  One person I particularly connect with is St. Francis of Assisi.  Francis was the son of a wealthy merchant who felt a calling to God.  He abandoned his fortunes to lead a life of service to others, preaching everywhere he went.  Legend has it that Francis even preached to the birds and animals of the forest.

One particular story about Francis that has stuck with me coincides with the idea of All Means All.  During the 13th century, lepers were regarded as outcasts, shunned from civilization for fear of contamination.  The skin diseases incorporated into the generic term leprosy were deadly and without cure.  Lepers were required to wear a bell on their person, to ring as they moved, warning people of their approach.  Francis, in all his holiness, was deathly afraid of lepers.  He knew it was a fear he must overcome if he was to live his live as he wanted, but the sight of a leper froze him in his tracks.

The story tells us that during his travels, Francis encountered a leper.  His first inclination was to flee, but he chose instead to remain, resolute in his decision to serve.  He approached the man, shoving his fear to the side.  Deciding once and all to overcome his greatest aversion, he gave the man money for alms and then proceeded to grab him and kiss him as one would kiss a brother.  The legend then tells us the man disappears, leaving Francis with only the feeling of peace for overcoming his fear and loving all men the same.  For Francis, this experience was an All Means All moment.
Yesterday, I had a brief experience that reflects this story.  I was walking to a corner store to get a water and was engaged in conversation with a man walking the same direction.  He was unwashed, wearing unkempt clothing, using speech that marked him as uneducated.  My desire was to walk faster, separating the two of us, preventing him from addressing me.  After I answered his questions as briefly as possible, I sped up, moving away.
Immediately, I realized what I was doing.  I reflected on the people after whom I model my life, wondering how they would have approached the situation.  I know it would have been different, more loving, than my own reaction.  I resolved that I would do better if I encountered a similar opportunity.  The universe soon provided one.
A few minutes later, the man caught up to me, prompting more conversation.  My answers were longer, more connected and less designed to shun stop the conversation.  After a brief exchange, we parted, wishing each other a good day.
I purchased my water, feeling better for my attempt, but not yet satisfied.  I had still cringed slightly at his approach, I was still judgmental about the type of person he was based on his appearance, and I still preferred not to speak with him.  My efforts the second time around were more true to my spirit, though, even if I have a ways to go to achieve my goal.  I recognize that to succeed, I need to know that All Means All, in every aspect of my life.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Have a First Division Day!

My week did not start out so well.  I was in a funk on Monday morning; I have no idea why.  Everything I, or anyone around me, did seemed impossibly irritating.  Perhaps it was the return from a three day weekend, or the stress surrounding approaching deadlines, or PMS (pouty man syndrome), but a smile was the furthest thing from my face.  When I got home, I expected to be able to whine and gripe about my day, dragging Samantha down with me.

I wasn't allowed to.

Not only was I not allowed to disparage my day, I was forced to list off every good thing I could think of that had happened to me during the day.  While I found it difficult, I was able to find some things.  Least of all, Samantha reminded me that I was alive, I had food to eat, I had a place to live, and I had people who loved me.

Thanks a lot for ruining my perfectly bad day!

The next morning began roughly the same way, as if someone had peed in my Cheerios.  I caught myself though, and snuck away for a quick text.  I thought of ten things I was thankful for and texted them to Sam.  Some were small, some were grand, but I was thankful for them all equally.  After that, the rest of the day went well.  I went about my business with positive energy, attempting to smile as much as I could, bringing happiness to every frowny face I encountered.

During my band class, instead of pointing out everything they did wrong, I talked about what they did right.  I highlighted the qualities of their performance that was First Division quality and challenged them to bring that same quality to every part of their performance.  I didn't let them cheat themselves out of a First Division rehearsal.  I handed out rewards in the form of compliments and candy.

This morning I showed up to work with a smile on my face.  I was prepared for a First Division day.  No more poopy faced Frank for my students and colleagues - he is no longer invited.  I did more of the same, introducing First Division tone quality, First Division balance, First Division practice habits, First Division rehearsal techniques.  Where I would have handed out sarcastic negativity in a harsh tone on Monday I handed out lollypops and Airheads, where I would have lambasted teenagers for what they weren't doing, I praised them for what they did do, what they had the potential to do, and what they were going to accomplish.

What happened to make Wednesday and Monday completely different extremes?  I remembered to be thankful.  I remembered that it takes more muscles to frown than smile.  I chose to make it easier on myself and my kids by being positive.  I remembered the kind of person I want to be instead of the person I was choosing to be.  I decided to be a First Division person.

Thanks Samantha for not letting me pout and throw a tantrum Monday afternoon, instead gently nudging me in the direction I wanted to be moving - forwards, not backwards.  Had that not happened, I would have had a much different Tuesday and a much different week.

Here's to your first Division Day today, tomorrow, and for the rest of your lives!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Long Race

Do you feel like you are running a race that never ends?  Do you feel like you keep putting one foot in front of another only to never ever cross the finish line?  Astonishingly enough, you are not alone.  Many people feel like their daily lives are one marathon sprint after another: endless races stacked one upon another.  As soon as one completes, another begins; there is no time for rewards, celebrations, or accolades, let alone a breath, before the starting line is once again behind us.  Living a life like this can be exhausting without the right preparation and the right attitude.
Today, one of my friends, Roland Gomez - or RunningRoland - to whom I have dedicated a previous blog, has completed the longest race of his life - 100 miles.  This was no automobile race, or even a bike race, where 100 miles is not such a big deal.  This was a foot race on the hiking trails of Huntsville State park, run over 27 hours and 38 minutes.  The race began on Saturday morning and finished Sunday morning.  There was no pause, no rest, no moment of respite, other than the periodic walk breaks; even those were used to refuel the body.  Roland ran for more than a day, more than a turn of the Earth, in temperatures ranging from 20 degrees to 60 degrees on a course through the unlit woods.  How is that for feeling like a race will never end?
Roland established his goal for this race one year ago, when he first ran a 50 mile race on the same course.  That race, up to this point, was his longest foot race, taking just over ten hours.  As he finished up last year, the 100 milers were stopping into camp to strap on their headlamps and grab their night gear for the overnight portion of the run.  While he relished in his victory, he set the new goal that day - 100 miles.
The next year was devoted to this goal.  He planned a series of races during the year to help him develop the mental and physical endurance necessary to extend his willpower through the grueling race.  He had ups and downs, finishing some races and not finishing others.  He battled injury and fatigue, overcoming his body’s weakness, exploring new running motions to protect his joints and muscles.  At one point, he declared everything was on hold as he redeveloped his running style to better suit his intentions.
No matter what, he kept moving forward.
Then came the race.  Because of the threat of ice in the area, his lodging plans changed.  Instead of sleeping in a bed the night before the race, he slept in a tent at the race site - making sure nothing would prevent him from the opportunity to achieve his goal.  The race was grueling.  His first facebook update was at 40 miles, his comment - its starting to hurt - said it all.  Did he stop?  No.  The next - mile 60, damn this is getting interesting.  Then six hours later - 80 miles! 20 more! gotta run!
Finally, the message arrived that he had finished.
Roland’s journey from finish line to finish line is impressive, not just because of the race itself, but because of the dedication it took to even make it to the start line.  The will power to dedicate himself to a goal, keep at it despite disappointment, and never give up is more than impressive - it is awe inspiring.  It takes true passion to achieve one’s goals after such a long journey.
How did he do it?  Patience, endurance, and humility.  Setting a long term goal like this is hard for modern Americans.  We live in such a NOW NOW NOW culture, planning for the future is difficult.  Keeping our mind focused and free from distraction is necessary to a long term goal; without patience, our chances for achieving a goal so far in the future diminishes.  The threat of boredom, complacency, and procrastination waits at our door step.  The only way to fight them all is a profound sense of patience.
Holding steadfast to a goal is difficult when your body and your mind are fighting you.  Pushing through those low moments, fighting to keep the goal in sight, takes endurance.  Running the race itself takes endurance.  One foot, then the next - for more than 27 hours.
Finally, humility is necessary.  The ego will fight the long term.  It wants satisfaction now.  It wants to do it on it’s own.  It wants no help because it prefers to prove it’s own ability.  Accepting help, guidance, and motivation from others keeps the goal alive and real.  The goal continues to be important instead of the self.  Sometimes you need someone to run next to you and remind you why the pain and fatigue are necessary.
Every race you run, whether it be short or long, can benefit from these three elements.  Incorporate them into your plan and your chances for success jump.  Without them, you are not doomed to failure, but failure increasingly becomes a possibility.  Roland is a prime example of a motivated person who has identified and embodied the necessary elements for success.  I don’t doubt that any goal Roland chooses will be achieved simply because of who he is.  
100 miles is the proof.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


So, I am vegetarian again - Surprise!!!  I can just see the eye rolling as people are reading this.  I know, I know, I seem to flip flop more than some of our favorite politicians.  Truth be told I have been waffling on the issue since October and finally decided to go through with it again.
For me, the hardest part of making the decision to abandon meat is accepting the inconvenience.  For the carnivore, impromptu meals are easy - everyone sells meat.  For the vegetarian, finding a dining option can sometimes be difficult.  Sure, everyone sells a salad, but I have never once decided to be vegetarian because I am in love with salads.  Sure, a salad now and again is good, but every meal . . . please.  It just isn’t for me.
Anyway, a brief history of my vegetarianism, for those of you not familiar with the exciting details.  By the summer of 2000, my best friend Steven had been dabbling in vegetarianism for a few months.  I decided to try it, but for different reasons that his.  My reasons were centered in living healthier life and taking healthier food into my body.  I wasn’t incredibly impressed with my 20 year old body and was looking for a different way to cut calories.
I decided I would cut out beef.  After four weeks of eating beef-less meals, I realized that I hadn’t eaten any meat at all (except fish - which for some reason is not considered meat by some people).  So, I kept not eating meat.  
Working at Joe's.  Yes,
the hair is real.
The next summer I was working at Joe’s Crab Shack and the seafood options helped curb my four legged cravings, but I realized that my passion for not eating meat had evolved.  No longer was it simply about health (my weight loss was actually quite minimal, by the way), rather I had begun to sympathize with the animals themselves.  I couldn’t stomach the idea that the last thing present in the animal immediately prior to death was fear, anger, and pain.  I couldn’t imagine bringing that into my body.  Additionally, one of my good friends, in a good natured attempt to derail our vegetarian efforts, suggested that I was being even more brutal in my eating habits than he - a regular meat eater.  When I dined on a shrimp, I was consuming an entire animal.  When he dined on a steak, the cow could have possibly survived.  Who was worse?  In his summation, I was.
His plan backfired and instead of bringing my wayward soul back to the land of meat eaters, I freed myself of seafood, delving into the realm of ovo-lacto-vegetarians, those who choose to eat eggs and milk.  No animals died for my meal, and I felt good about it.  I continued this way until two weeks prior to my wedding in 2005, when I resumed my consumption of animal flesh.  Honestly, I could not say why I returned.  All I really remember about it all was eating my first tuna sandwich, fearing a rebellion in my stomach; none came.  
Over the last five and a half years, I have gone back and forth between the two, the battle of meat/no-meat playing out on my dinner table.  I applaud Samantha for her patience.  There is a solid reason why I cook more than she does; she says it is because she never knows before a meal if I will change my mind on whether or not I am eating meat that day.
I absolutely love this stuff.  
So, why this time?  Is it health?  Is it the pain and fear?  Is it karma?  Is it peer pressure?  For me, it just feels right.  Vegetarianism is the right fit for me right now.  I don’t dislike meat, in fact, I LOVE bacon, but the thought of the process the bacon goes through from piglet to frying in my pan churns my stomach.  There have been times I have stood in front of my pets and wondered - could I eat you?  The answer is overwhelmingly no, so why should I do it to any other animal.
My decision is my own and has nothing to do with anyone else.  I have never been the militant hippy type preaching Save the Animals.  While I feel it is the right thing to do, it is a personal choice and has to be left to each individual.  I do know that I feel better when not eating meat, physically, mentally, and spiritually, but I can’t predict how anyone else would feel.
So, to those of you who revel in the opportunity to turn a vegetarian back to meat, here I am.  Bring on your taunts and jibes!  I am ready for them!
Good eating to you all.